Ask not for whom the politicians toll

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

As one drives around these great United States, one is bound to find oneself on a toll road at some point. Thirty-five states require drivers to pay tolls on some 5,000 miles of roads as a way to raise money to pay for their transportation infrastructure. Is Wisconsin set to become the 36th?

Toll roads are nothing new. In fact, toll roads predate our nation. The first toll roads in the United States were constructed in the years immediately after the signing of the Constitution. The 1790s saw the construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and the Great Western Turnpike in New York.

For many of us who grew up in the previous century, our memories of toll roads are long lines of cars jostling for position at a row of toll booths while digging for the correct change. Toll roads have come a long way since then. We have David Cook to thank for revolutionizing toll roads in 1989. David Cook is the Dallas entrepreneur who founded Blockbuster. Before 1985, video rental stores existed as small, independent, unremarkable enterprises. Cook’s innovation was to utilize barcode scanning and database-driven inventory management to rent videos on a large scale. He then used a centralized distribution system and leveraged the behavioral and demographic information his databases held to get the movies people wanted into their local stores. Until the next wave of digital transformation obliterated its business model, Blockbuster was a remarkable business.

While still at Blockbuster, Cook invested in Amtech, a company that was tinkering with technology that used radio frequencies to identify moving objects. They hoped to use the technology for railroads. Cook envisioned another use for the technology to make toll roads faster by removing the need to collect cash. Cook installed the technology for free in Dallas in 1989 with tremendous results. Other companies and toll road authorities quickly followed suit.

Most toll roads in the U.S. still use a variation of Cook’s transponder technology, but it has been improved to where vehicles can travel at full speed. Newer technologies are also being developed. For example, in Colorado, a sophisticated camera system eliminates the need for a transponder by taking a picture of each car’s license plates and sending the bill to the owner.

But while the technology of separating drivers from their money has become remarkably convenient and easy, that does not resolve the essential economic and political problems associated with tolling.

One of the core responsibilities with which we have tasked our governments is to construct and maintain an adequate transportation infrastructure. This is necessary primarily for economic reasons since the movement of goods and labor is vital for economic prosperity. But it is also for the pleasure and enjoyment of citizens to be able to move around our great nation with relative ease.

A good transportation infrastructure is not inexpensive and there are a variety of philosophies on how to pay for it. One way is to just use general taxes under the notion that every taxpayer benefits from the transportation system either directly or indirectly. This spreads the cost over the greatest number of taxpayers and our political leaders must balance transportation priorities against all of the other demands on general funds like education, law enforcement, etc.

Another way to fund transportation is to levy taxes and fees from the direct users of the transportation system. This is largely how the state of Wisconsin does it by using the vehicle registration fee and gas tax as proxies for users. In Wisconsin, if you register several or larger vehicles, or buy a lot of gas, you pay more transportation taxes because you are presumably using the transportation infrastructure more. In the age of electric cars, however, the proxy of the gas tax is less valid than it once was.

Toll roads are merely an extension of the latter philosophy for transportation funding. It is a direct tax on the people using a specific road at a specific time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept, but it must be put into perspective.

The reason that Wisconsin Republican politicians are talking about toll roads is because they want to spend more money on transportation and they cannot find the money elsewhere. Wisconsin’s gas tax and registration fee are already well above the national average and the public has no appetite to raise our ranking any higher. State lawmakers could tap the state’s general fund for more money or borrow more, but there is also stiff opposition to those ideas. The idea of toll roads are being floated as another possible option to get more money from taxpayers.

The intractable problem with the transportation budget in Wisconsin is not that there is too little money for our needs. The problem is that politicians want to spend far more than Wisconsinites can afford. Toll roads will not fix that problem. Fiscal restraint and leadership will. Are Wisconsin’s Republicans capable of that anymore?